a (very long) conversation with dopplr’s matt jones
Over at the AP blog, I put some excerpts from my interview with Adaptive Path’s good friend Matt Jones of Dopplr. Peter suggested that I use my personal blog for the “DVD extras” (as he put it), so I’m posting the entire 2 hour IM interview here. It’s long, it’s weird, and it was seriously a lot of fun. I hope you dig it.
And oh, hey, if you decide to register for MX, be sure to use FORF as your registration code (as in “Friend of Ryan Freitas”) for an additional 10% off!
Interview with Matt Jones
Ryan Freitas: Thank you for agreeing to chat prior to your appearance at MX next month.
Matt Jones: No problem! Or ‘np’ as they say on the internet.
RF: Will the talk you’re doing be similar to your IXDA presentation?
MJ: My IxDA presentation was about process and form in a way – how my way of working has been changed by new tools and new ways of developing. It was also about the nature of designing services that have a geospatial and time-based component. Hence it’s title “Designing for Spacetime.”
RF: I enjoyed the hell out of that talk.
MJ: Thanks! My MX talk will be more generally about the social component.
RF: Oh good. That’s actually part of your talk that I wanted to discuss.
MJ: But! It’s hard to get me off the spacetime subject… It’s a continuum…
RF: Of course. And we’ll get to THAT too. But I wanted to get deeper into something you mentioned in your “Spacetime” talk… because you actually did me a huge favor by mentioning Jyri Engestrom and “social objects.” Discussion of social objects actually gets us to Grant Morrison in two moves. [smile]
RF: So, the role of “social objects” in Dopplr…
MJ: Well – let’s dial back the Delorean a little to Jyri’s coinage of “social objects.” He was coming at it from social science, specifically “Actor-Network Theory” where sociologists consider everything to act on everything else – people, environments, tools, and consider these systems to understand how people socialise with each other, mediated by tools, objects, environments etc. So the ‘social object’ in Jyri’s thinking is the centre of gravity of some social transaction. And it’s also the trigger… and the transmitter of sociality. The canonical case being a photo in Flickr.
RF: It functions as both artifact and instigator?
MJ: Yep. In dopplr’s case it’s the “trip.”
RF: It’s the thing I’ve created, and placed into the network for others to react to and generate from.
MJ: Yeah – and I guess the interesting thing we’re coming to see is that the ‘placing on the network’ is becoming less of a conscious act, and more the default state.
RF: Auto-artifacting. Like a run in Nike+. Or more accurately, a byproduct of behavior.
MJ: An information wake as it’s been called.
RF: Wake implies one-way…
MJ: Yes. Dopplr is about the future. So we’re a little different; you’re creating a model of the future – a proposal of behaviour if you like. That becomes the social object. Part of the sociality is negotiating and changing that – optimising it before it happens. Which is a little bit of what my talk is going to address – the act of making models together.
RF: And finding that “perfect line through the future”? As a collaborative process?
MJ: And how social software is going to ‘disappear’ in the Don Norman sense (i.e. social network functions will become banal as cut and paste).
RF: So all this creation of and interaction around social objects… it ties a bit into what the Situationists referred to as the Spectacle. Taking experience out of the world and transforming them into something else. By participating in these communities, are are we in some sense commoditizing our behavior?
MJ: I’d say yes and no. While we’re experiencing it through the proscenium arch of the laptop – maybe. But we’re seeing the ‘everting of cyberspace’ into the real world as William Gibson put it. I’d take the example of Twitter at conferences compared to twitter as chatroom.
RF: Precisely what I’m talking about. It’s fascinating to watch. And a little disturbing. You get the sense that other people are watching, vaguely horrified by these clusters of geeks standing around, typing away on smart phones rather than speaking to one another.
MJ: Yep – but undeniably valuable and amplifying to the people using it in that context well – it doesn’t help that the formfactors and UI of the devices we have still make us dive through the screen.
RF: I’m going to quote you again… “Our devices compete with the world for our attention.” Are these the kind of behaviors you were talking about?
MJ: Well – yes, but perhaps I could add that our services are starting to complement the world and our attention… at least they are taking the first baby-steps. The UIs aren’t there yet in most cases. But now we have service designers creating things that give timely amplification to our knowledge, decision making capabilities, sense of the world around us. I’m pretty hopeful actually. I posted something to my blog a little while back about this in terms of UIs that allow us to scamper up and down the attention scale. You can see hints of them in little disconnected piles right now.
MJ: “Ping Ping Ping.” The iPhone has had a huge cultural impact on Silicon Valley in terms of persuading service design innovators to think about mobile in a less constrained way.
RF: The whole ecosystem seems to have finally convinced designers they need to look beyond the device…
MJ: Yep – last year at SxSWi I was talking about the mobile as a stub-maker / iceberg-tickler:
Stub-maker – create a small mark that I like this thing, I need to do this later, I want to remember this.
Iceberg-tickler – give me just the right cupful of the iceberg right now. And those are the sorts of services that are emerging for mobile.
And its happening much faster now that iphone fever has swept the valley.
RF: Those kinds of services certainly seem more complementary to actual behavior than trying to figure out yet another way to convince people to watch crappy video on their phones.
MJ: Well – those are the sorts of macro features that get called out on the box – so they keep re-occuring. But Ryan – Mother Box… is not in the Box. I was talking with Matt Biddulph about this today. When we were in the States recently and not able to afford mobile data roaming, then our mother boxes were effectively bricked. And things we’d take for granted like finding a bar or finding something in gmail left us helpless.
RF: Because the layer of augmentation had been stripped away.
MJ: So Mother Box… is not in the Box…
RF: It’s merely the machine that goes “PING.” So here, with the iPhone, have we got one of Warren Ellis’ “genuine outbreaks of the future”?
RF: You’ve mentioned the danger of “lost futures,” based on the success of a given device. One model becomes wildly popular, and other, more interesting ways of looking at the problem get cast aside… or at least ignored when they could be doing the most good.
MJ: Exactly – the gravity well of the iPhone is going to be hard for anyone developing innovative UIs to escape for the next few years. In hardware, you’re subject to the determinism of sourcing components.
RF: Our friends the cognitive anthropologists have warned us about the implications of subscribing to the wrong cognitive artifacts…
MJ: So everyone for the last 2/3 years has been offered the same touchscreen components more or less by a few suppliers. And we all (more or less) have similar dimensions we can work within in a touch UI.
RF: So thinking in hardware becomes even more constrained?
MJ: To an extent. UIs will not be so diverse in the next few years… inside a BigDeviceCo you’re going to find it hard to justify the investment in the out-there stuff (as always). But there’s still innovation a plenty to come, its just that for the next few years it’ll be all 16:9 touchscreens, I guess. And then… hopefully someone will Wii on their parade and breakthrough with something as different as the iPhone was to the existing crop of smartphones. That’s my hope anyway. And I think it might be in the area of physical/gestural interfaces, matched with ambient/visualisation tech to give us more natural ‘Everyware‘.
RF: Anything in that area you’ve been thinking about? Something you’d like to build?
MJ: That would be telling! I think there are already some awesome things being developed by people like Julian Bleeker for instance in this realm of possibility – he’s making reference designs for physical/digital/personal ‘toys’ and devices
RF: I loved the SeeShell concept for Oyster cards that you pointed to a couple days ago.
MJ: Yes! These are the things that interest me greatly – ‘personal informatics’. You mentioned Nike+ which is the poster child for now.
RF: RescueTime is my new favorite.
MJ: Imagine RescueTime extending off the desktop. Scary perhaps…
RF: And now Google Labs is putting out iMap mail behavior visualization.
RF: Well, it’s the White Lotus meditation, isn’t it? How can you say “I am” without perfect self-knowledge?
MJ: I think this is somehow the consolation of these personal informatics. We find data about ourselves – these patterns, somehow affirming.
RF: All of this data is hidden from us, and we’re the one’s generating it… we aren’t equipped, cognitively, to learn anything more than impressions from our own actions. In attempting to gather more complete pictures of our behaviors – and gain better analysis of ourselves – whats our motivation?
MJ: Well – coming back to the social aspect. The overlays of these patterns with those of others are a new kind of feedback we haven’t had at any scale before. And we do flock well. So perhaps that’s how we will learn and change our behaviours… in a “supercontext” if you will… [wink]
[ed note: In his groundbreaking comic book series, The Invisibles, Grant Morrison posited the "supercontext" as a sort of existence/construct that humanity is evolving toward. Within it, the bounds of ego and identity loosen up (we merge into one another) and time becomes something we can traverse like distance, dipping into and out of any moment in our lives at will.]
RF: Given your presentations on spacetime, Morrison’s supercontext (and time travel in general) seem pertinent to Dopplr. Morrison had a variety of means by which his characters moved through time, including a windmill. With Dopplr, are you building your very own timetravel device – a windmill, as it were? Or, everybody’s windmill, to be more accurate?
MJ: Well… Dopplr is definitely a sandbox for some of our philosophies. In that sense we’re designing and building it to prove ourselves right (and wrong) about some of the things we think about social software. And part of that is the way we want this supercontext of shared behaviour and intentions to be accessed and protected.
RF: Protected in what way?
MJ: Well – we try to be very careful about what’s shared, when and to whom and how you can get data in and out – to the supercontext in ways that don’t harm.
RF: You’ve talked about current systems for travel being inherently miserable. It seems that reducing misery is one of your core principles.
MJ: Yes – at the very least. We’d like to increase joy, ideally. But we’ve a long way to go with air travel there…
RF: Increasing joy would be part of prepping humanity for the supercontext, yeah? Building up a karmic surplus? At least, that’s kind of how I’ve approached it.
MJ: It seems prudent.
RF: So on the one hand, as a designers, we’re looking to make awful systems treat people better… but then, as you’ve put it, we as a practice should be looking to inject moments of “irational delight”.
MJ: Yep. “Commodity, firmness and delight” – as Vitruvius said. In that order.
RF: We owe a debt of thanks to Mitch Kapor and his “Software Design Manifesto” for grounding our practice in the principles of Roman Architecture.
MJ: Vitruvius also did a good bit on Siege Engines, but that doesn’t seem to be quoted by so many interaction designers.
RF: Oh, I don’t know. I know a few designers whose style of argument is sort of like a trebuchet. They lob enormously heavy ideas from great heights in a sustained bombardment.
MJ: Not the fetid plague-ridden cows?
RF: Effective, but there’s the clean up. It has the advantage of leaving a habitable structure, though, so I see the appeal.
MJ: This is the sort of punchy, real-world effective advice people can expect from me at MX, you see. Although I guess Seth Godin did okay with Purple Cows. Perhaps my business bestseller is right there.
RF: “Don’t Think of Plague-Ridden Cow!” by Matt Jones
MJ: “Who Moved My Siege Engine” by Matt Jones. “What Colour is Your Windmill?” “Getting Things Dharma’d”. I could go on.
RF: Apparently! Let’s talk about your style of work and inspiration. In a post a long ways back (2003!) you quoted something Warren Ellis wrote about how ideas hit. I’m assuming that you found some commonality with his experience? And his methods, perhaps.
MJ: Well, yeah. Sometimes they are just brainworms that won’t go away. And sometimes they are like how Warren describes there – singularities that just form from everything and nothing. I think Veen also said the same thing on AP’s blog a few years back. You can pretend you have a process and sometimes process is the magic, the invocation you need to get those points to appear. But sometimes they will just come out of the foam. I think the weird thing is that process is seen as something for reducing risk and increasing the reproduction of predictable results. Whereas I’m more inspired by process that creates something unexpected.
RF: You’re known as a fan of building first, asking questions later. Is that accurate?
MJ: Well – whatever you think of Ideo, ‘Build to think’ is a pretty fantastic way of incapsulating that thought. And it’s cheaper than thinking now [nose wink] With mobile it’s essential, and yet hard to do. I’m still a big fan of Bruce Mao’s manifesto:
“3. Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.
4. Love your experiments (as you would an ugly child). Joy is the engine of growth. Exploit the liberty in casting your work as beautiful experiments, iterations, attempts, trials, and errors. Take the long view and allow yourself the fun of failure every day.”
And how about that, “Joy is the engine of growth”?! Although it sounds a bit like something you’d paint on the front of a tank. I went to an exhibition about the avant-garde today. So all of that Futurists stuff is probably rubbing off.
RF: I always find it mildly funny when people tell me they’re Futurists. Its a bad art history joke. “Fascinated with trains, then?” This looks like it was quite an exhibition.
MJ: Pretty good, yes… although I just ran round it in 30 mins unfortunately all the time I had. I’m very aware that sometimes we strike the same notes in our technoptimism and designerly zeal to make ‘a finer world’ – to come back to Warren Ellis again.
RF: It’s a noble pursuit… it can’t be as flawed as the Futurists were, though. I mean, it could. But they laid the groundwork for the intellectual endorsement of Fascism.
MJ: Exactly. There’s a book I was mentioning to Jen Learnard of Ideo the other day on this tack – by Deyjan Sudjic, called “The Edifice Complex“. Its about how dictators and designers are often very comfortable bedfellows.
RF: Certainly! Propaganda is very comfortable in the hands of designers. Strong, unequivocal messages…
MJ: Jobs/Ive [wink]
RF: Why do you think designers are so prone to manifestos? The embrace of the absolute.
MJ: I’m as guilty as anyone else. It’s creating a constraint to kick against. It’s a brief in a way
RF: As I recall. You’ve written one.
MJ: Oh, many. It’s an act of design – a shaping.
RF: “No-one marches into battle to Belle and Sebastian”
MJ: Which i wrote halfjokingly for a magazine here in the UK back in 2001.
RF: What is your marching music, these days?
MJ: Well, here’s some personal informatics [from LastFM ]!
1206478459,Thom Yorke – Black Swan
1206477675,Bob Dylan and The Band – I Shall Be Released
1206477113,Orbital – Remind (1995)
1206476897,Roots Manuva – Sinny Sin Sins
1206476672,Prefuse 73 – Through Light
1206476327,Broken Social Scene – Love and Mathematics
1206476064,Calexico – No Doze
1206475912,We Are Scientists – Inaction
1206475065,Sonic Youth – Trilogy
1206474676,Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra – Battle of the Species
Has been playing while we’ve been talking…
RF: Excellent stuff. You don’t appear to embrace the “sonic wallpaper” philosophy There’s some actual oomph to what you listen to.
MJ: Oh yeah. Oomphy Wallpaper. Sonic Cogs that grind you through. Very necessary.
RF: “Oomphy wallpaper” should be the motto of Timorous Beasties.
MJ: Or my next business.
RF: Heh. Alright. Back to time travel.
RF: As a Dopplr user, I’m creating trips, negotiating details – and then the ineffable march of time brings me to these social objects I’ve created and translates them into experience.
MJ: Yes. That’s nicely put.
RF: The experience complete, I am left with a (massively valuable) trace of my movement in spacetime.
MJ: Yes- we’re going to be doing more to make that apparent and useful to you. Already people are telling us they use it for prosaic but useful things like filling in expense reports.
RF: I keep generating trips, and my context is forced to move forward, and so what I end up with is a constant forward to back stream of data to explore and optimize. If dopplr is the stream, there’s a missing piece, from my perspective. Something to navigate the stream with.
[ed note: In addition to Morrison's windmill, his characters have utilized an artifact powerful enough to move itself and its bearer through time. He refers to it as a Hand of Glory, a popular occult fetish object of the 19th century]
So, are you building a Hand of Glory?
MJ: Who says I have to build one? [wink]
RF: [smile] The Hand moves time around “like a cursor on a screen”… and you’ve gone and built what is essentially a four-dimensional construct…
MJ: But yeah – it’s a different UI for sure for that. Compared to the one you’d use to build and examine a model of the future model. I think if you look to some of the Glory-ous work of Stamen in things like Trulia Hindsight you get ideas about UI for poring over the past. Looking for patterns and instances. Interfaces for ‘poring-over’ is something I’m very interested in.
RF: There’s some interesting context switches that happen with the related behaviors of “poring-over.” Lots of opportunities for elegant moments, from a UI perspective.
MJ: Yes. And some of that will come from us, and some hopefully from people using our API to build ‘Hands of Glory’
RF: That sounds excellent. I want to thank you for your time, Matt. This has been great.
MJ: It was a pleasure. Thank you! I’m looking forward to MX.
RF: We’re delighted to have you. Have a great evening, and thanks again.